In thinking about this genre, you can’t forget the PlayStation’s LittleBigPlanet, which was released to no small acclaim a few months before Minecraft. After three games starring the cute, black-eyed burlap doll Sackboy and a mammoth 11 million user-created levels, Media Molecule, the developer behind LittleBigPlanet, yearned to take community-based game making to the next level. It took seven long years, but Dreams is a far more visually wondrous example of the “play, create, share” mantra from the U.K.-based, Sony-owned studio.
Last April, Media Molecule released an unfinished version of the Dreams creation tools to the public. The tools in the early access program allowed Dreamers, as the community is called, to make scenes and game levels, some of which were stunningly animated and well-realized. Others were, to be generous, cute, but not much else.
With those tools, I sometimes felt that using the controller to drag, drop and resize objects was like getting a package-ridden Sam Porter Bridges in Death Stranding to first climb a rain-soaked mountain. I felt frustrated at times, wishing that a peripheral like a Wacom tablet could help turn my ideas into playable art more smoothly. Thankfully, in the full game, which came out on Feb. 14, tweaks to the tools add more precision, and the controller-as-building-device becomes easier to work with. It’s actually more forgiving than using the controller to make levels in LittleBigPlanet.
Each week, Media Molecule has hosted a game jam online, featuring themes like food or winter or romance. The developer announces the topic, and Dreamers elect via upvotes the most stunning of the entries. They’re mostly variations on time worn subjects, however.
The visual delights of candy within “The Sweetest Place in the Universe,” for example, look more luscious than many games, commercials or movies that I’ve seen. It features two checkers-playing doughnuts lit romantically by a marshmallow torch, and a giant red apple bobbing in the rapids of a caramel waterfall. It isn’t a game yet, but its trailer did tease a release of spring 2020. For me, it’s eagerly awaited.
“Silent Hills,” inspired by P.T., the Del Toro/Kojima demo for a horror game that was ultimately canceled by Konami, is a full game. The graphics are passable, the dialogue isn’t well-acted and the writing needs an editor. Still, the scale of the effort is impressive. “Silent Hills” isn’t unusual for the community. From Pokémon to “Twin Peaks” to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” many of the Dreamers’ pieces are from makers creating fan fiction-like homages to their favorite media, low and high.
“Trace of time” begins with a sleeping, black-eyed girl in a white dress who wakes up in one of the lushest country yards I’ve ever seen in an indie game. But its bucolic nature belies a mystery as the young girl searches a creepy house and finds bloody clues to an otherworldly mystery in the basement. Though it’s completely without dialogue, its narrative is disturbing and stirring.
The best dream I’ve found after hours of search is “Pig Detective 2: Adventures in Cowboy Town.” In this goofy satire of the Red Dead Redemption series with humor that works well, you’re a clothesless detective wearing only a top hat as you chase an oinking pink pig to get $10 from a snide, banjo playing farmer. With their googly eyes and odd movements, the lo-fi, cartoonish characters add to the comedy, especially when you see the detective try to gun down giant roaches who’ve taken over the local gold mine — only to realize he has no bullets. The Pig Detective series (yes, there’s more) is excellent effort, but it’s “Cowboy Town” that won Media Molecule’s Impy Award for Dream of the Year (their game of the year category).
Media Molecule made a dream, too. The feature film-length Art’s Dream shines both graphically and game-wise. “Art’s Dream” is a vibrant noir tale about a scoundrel jazz musician seeking redemption. In-game, you’ll find an enormous Mullein moth caterpillar to ride on to get to the next jumping point. There’s a guitar that turns into a ray gun, making acoustic bass notes with every press of the controller trigger. An ultra-cute robot with an elephantine nose sucks up its pal to take him to higher levels. The graphics, levels and scenes are as utterly ingenious as any lauded animated film of our time.
While the narrative is good enough at best, it's often without nuance in its effort to drive home the idea of friendship and community above the solo experience. As you go farther, there are sometimes mediocre lines of dialogue and an effort, a la “Epic Mickey 2,” to add songs to the story. These are fine musically, but again, they are rarely richly witty or evocative when the writer attempts humor or pathos lyrically.
While Art’s story is uneven because it tries to do too much, the inventive graphics that make the human characters look like surreal clay sculptures kept me rooting for the wayward musician. And because the smudgy, watercolor style of Dreams is perfect for the nightmare sequences within “Art’s Dream,” you forgive the platitudes in the story.
“Art’s Dream,” is just the prelude to what Dreams is really about. In effect, the tale is a Trojan horse for the more significant part of the game, the dream that you yourself create. Media Molecule wants you to join its virtual village, which may well grow as large as the LittleBigPlanet community. Will you seek a community, like Art does, to make your masterpiece? Or will you go it alone and try to do something completely magical?
While it’s clear the developers are pushing you toward Dreamer collaboration, it’s also okay to go it alone without the waiting for the teeming folks in the town square to give you the fleeting reinforcement of a thumbs up. Just let you be you.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.